A 25-year-old from a small town leads North Carolina's Democratic Party toward 2024

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Anderson Clayton, 25, is the youngest party chairperson in the United States. She is trying to reach out to rural and young voters.

Eamon Kingey for NPR


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She wants to help Democrats reach rural and young voters. She hopes to reach out to rural and young voters.

Eamon Kingey for NPR

She does too.


“I used to joke with people that if I didn’t run for something else, I was going to leave the Democratic Party,” she told an audience at a recent event in Washington, D.C. She understands it too.

“I used to joke that I would be leaving the Democratic Party if I did not run for anything else,” she told an audience in Washington D.C. at a recent Washington D.C. event.

So, she ran for something. Clayton has been chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party for more than six month now. She was promoted after leading her county party. It’s a title that she wears with pride, along with another one: being from a smaller town. She uses both identities to make her political battles more personal as she struggles with past faults and the direction she wants her party to take. “I was furious that the Democratic Party was ignoring areas like where I grew up. “

Clayton’s call to act

“Rural areas are dying right now, and for years people have just sat down and said, “y’all deserve it,” “she told NPR as she sat on the couch of her parents’ living room in Roxboro, N.C., during an afternoon summer in Roxboro. “

Clayton grew up in Roxboro, an 8,000-person town about an hour’s drive north of Raleigh. Sadie May, her dog, is watching closely as she speaks. The dining table in the adjacent room is set up as if it were for a big dinner party. The windows overlook her father’s garden which is constantly expanding. Music plays on the radio to scare off deer.
Clayton, a Roxboro resident, looks over the garden of her father, where he grows corn, cucumbers and squash as well as tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables, on June 27, 2011.

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In the lead-up to the 2024 election, Clayton is spending her time commuting around the state from Roxboro and hammering home a two-part message: Democrats have neglected rural communities like hers, and taken young voters her age for granted.But as she leads North Carolina’s Democratic party, she’s determined to show voters that Democrats are working to earn back their trust.
“My own people are the ones that I’ve got to figure out a way to motivate and mobilize and get energized around building this thing up from the bottom,” she explained.

But in North Carolina, the stakes are high ahead of 2024.

State Democrats are working to regain lost ground as Republicans now hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, along with the state Supreme Court.

On the national level, the state hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for 15 years, when the state went blue for former President Barack Obama in 2008.

Biden has been the closest since, losing to Trump by just 75,000 votes in 2020.

Linking Biden’s policy wins to rural issues

As of May, North Carolina is set to receive nearly 5 billion in federal funding as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, according to the White House. The investments will go towards projects focused on transportation, clean water and high-speed broadband.

Clayton is energized by the move and thinks communities need to know that these changes are happening because of the Biden administration.

“Joe Biden is the first president in 50 frickin’ years that said, if you live in a rural area,

deserve to have a future,” she said. It’s a shift in mindset that everyone deserves the best, regardless of where they live. That is what humanity demands. “

But spreading this message can be challenging, especially as Biden’s popularity lags nationwide and voters struggle to associate these policies with his presidency.

Plus, there’s a disconnect among the key groups that Clayton is looking to make gains with: young, rural and independent voters. According to the latest NPR/PBS

NewsHour

/Marist polling, 41% of young voters and 34% of independents approve of his job in office. This number is just 29% among rural voters. Rural voters tend to be Republican across the country, but in 2020 young rural voters were more divided. Just 50% of rural voters aged under 30 voted for the former president Trump compared to just 47% who voted for Biden. She told NPR. He’s the first president to have ever said, “I believe that.” “Why would I want someone not to believe in me? She asked.[you]
Clayton sits down at the table of her parents’ Roxboro home, N.C. on June 27, 2007. She gives President Biden credit for federal investments made in local communities.

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Expanding the ground game

With the presidential election 14 months away, some political organizers say Democratic wins will come down to strengthened and expanded local outreach outside traditionally blue strongholds.

“There’s more base voters in the cities. In the suburbs, there are many persuadable people. But in most states, that’s not going to add up to a win in North Carolina and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” said Sarah Jaynes, the Executive Director of Rural Democracy Initiative, which supports voters in rural communities.

Jaynes warns that if Democrats are only mobilizing voters in urban and suburban areas, they may still lose statewide.“So you have to pay attention to the rural areas when you think about the national map of where politics are the closest,” Jaynes said.
Ahead of 2024, Jaynes said outreach to rural voters must be part of the 2024 game plan, making local organizing a key priority in that fight.

Clayton’s plan to do just that is to put a candidate on the ballot in every state House and Senate race. It could be a daunting task following the 2022 election, where Democrats left more than 40 state races uncontested.

To accomplish this, Clayton wants to make sure county Democratic parties, especially in majority-minority counties, are getting support and resources from the state party to recruit candidates. She also wants to stay active in outreach to colleges, including at the state’s historically Black colleges and universities.

But to local organizers, like North Carolina-based Vashti Hinton-Smith from the left-leaning group Common Cause, this is an ongoing, long and hard fight.

“I do wonder sometimes if it’s too late,” said Hinton-Smith, who runs Common Cause’s civic engagement program at HBCUs within the state.

Though she agrees with Clayton’s youth outreach plan and remains cautiously optimistic, she said politicians need to play the long game in order to make change, which may require less focus on wins right now.

“Let’s also look four more years past,” Hinton-Smith said, referring to the 2028 election. “What would that look like?” asked Hinton-Smith, who runs Common Cause’s civic engagement program at HBCUs in the state. She is cautiously optimistic and agrees with Clayton’s youth outreach plan. “

A local message meets a statewide audience

As Clayton attempts to rally support, Republicans plan to cede no ground.

“You can’t ignore any demographic because you may lose them,” Republican state House majority Whip Jon Hardister told NPR after a Wake County Republican meeting in June. Jon Hardister, Republican state House majority whip, told NPR in June that you can’t ignore any group because you might lose them. You have to talk about issues that matter to the middle voters. “

According to Hardister, that means economic concerns remain a primary focus, particularly when talking with young voters across the state.

Walking around downtown Roxboro, Clayton feels that economic message acutely. She recalls her teachers and mother telling her to leave in order to succeed and get the job she desired. “Young people are told all the time

that they have to leave their small town to be able make a living, because there is not enough opportunity. “

It is something that she still remembers and that continues to influence her work. Especially as she works to convince other voters that the Democratic Party deserves another look. Clayton stated that you should have the opportunity to live and experience your community but also be given so many opportunities. “I believe it’s a message that the Democratic Party is trying to spread across the country. I don’t believe we have a good way to communicate that message. “

Clayton was raised in Roxboro, N.C. (population 8,000) and often told she had to move away to find opportunities.

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This story is the first of two parts on the youngest party chairmen in our country.